Introduction. This page is dedicated to Boris, our beloved family dog. I wrote it up in remembrance the day after Boris died.
The page has four parts: A summary of Boris's life and accomplishments, some photographs of him from the family album, an account of his last days, and Rudyard Kipling's fine poem "The Power of the Dog."
In December 2002 I wrote a tribute to Boris for National Review Online. I have reproduced the column here. It includes the very strange story of Boris's temporary lameness.
Boris's life. Rosie and I brought Boris home from the North Shore Animal Shelter in Port Washington early in June 1992. He was already fully grown — at any rate, he never got any bigger than he was then. The shelter said he was a year or a year and a half old.
Boris died January 18, 2008. He thus lived to be 16½ or 17, perhaps past 17. He was a healthy, happy dog, who never caused us any trouble. His devotion to us was total and unconditional.
We had bought our house just a few weeks before bringing Boris home to it, and had at once hired a firm to put a simple wooden fence around the back yard. When Boris arrived, the fenced yard quickly became his domain. The house had no backyard deck for the first few months Boris was with us. Rosie used to let him down into the yard through one of the rear windows. After the deck (a.k.a. "patio" — it stands only a few inches above the back lawn) was built, with a sliding patio door for access, we could open the door for him. I later built a doggie door at the side so that he could come and go freely.
Boris must have known every square millimeter of that yard. Even in his last days, nearly sixteen years later, he loved to prowl around seeking out unfamiliar smells left by squirrels, birds, or neighborhood cats. The flowerbeds are full of his "treasures" — meat bones from the family dinner that he would take away and bury. We never understood the logic of this. He seemed to lose interest in a bone once it was buried; or else he could not remember where he had buried it … Though once in a while he would appear triumphantly in the living-room with an exhumed "treasure" — black, stinking, maggoty, and covered with soil — and leave it on the carpet for our admiration. Rosie, who does most of the gardening, is sadly reconciled to the fact that she will be uncovering Boris's "treasures" for years to come.
The great joy of Boris's life was his daily walk. We never stinted on this. When I was taking the 7:12 a.m. train to commute into Manhattan, 1992-1999, I would get up most mornings at 5:30 to make sure that Boris got a 25- or 30-minute walk round the block. If I couldn't do that, Rosie would walk him during the day. The distance here (Chestnut Street, Soundview Road, Walnut Place, Hawxhurst Road) is 0.6 miles, so that in those seven years of daily walks Boris and I must have covered well over a thousand miles, even allowing for vacations, sick days, and days when Rosie walked him.
When I started working from home in 1999, I adopted a more leisurely lifestyle, and pretty much sole walking duties, this being my main regular exercise. The daily walk now became longer: Chestnut Street, Hawxhurst Road, Woodchuck Hollow Road, Pennington Drive, and back to Hawxhurst. We'd sometimes vary this by going through the wild woods at the end of Cragg Court, but — wary of ticks — only if the weather was cold. Either way this "long" walk is about 1.6 miles. Eight and a half years of that (mid-1999 to late-2007) makes close to five thousand miles.
With all due allowances, I am therefore pretty sure I walked Boris over six thousand miles — equivalent to walking him to California and back!
Did I bond with this creature? You bet. He bonded with me, too, sometimes in striking and unusual ways. One such is related in the National Review Online piece I linked to above. There was another way, difficult to describe without indelicacy. Suffice it to say that both dogs and men have certain essential functions in mind first thing in the morning; that success in performing those functions is variable, even in the healthiest of us; and that after three or four years of daily walks, I began to notice that Boris's successes and failures in this regard were eerily synchronized with mine.
In his younger years, when his hearing was acute, Boris could pick out the expression "walkie-walkie" from our conversation. On hearing it, at any time of day, he would jump up and begin assaulting the kitchen door, desperate for the walk to begin. We started speaking in code, saying "w-w" instead, but he soon caught on to that too, with the same result. We were reduced to sign language at last.
We live in a quiet, friendly suburban neighborhood. Boris's daily walks were features not only of our lives, but of everybody's. The neighbors all knew Boris, and called out greetings to him as we passed. If we were away on vacation, kind neighbors would feed and walk him. Boris was a fixture around our little community. Everybody loved Boris. Even strangers would stop and admire him. Boris was a very attractive dog somehow. Not "cute" — he was too much of a mutt for that — but possessed of some concentrated quality of doggish-ness that people felt instinctively drawn to.
The main purpose of his life, in Boris's mind, was to look after us stupid, clumsy, erratic, vulnerable humans. Dogs are not needy: they regard us as needy, and find their happiness in supplying the need. If walkies were the great joy of Boris's life, his greatest distress was to be thwarted in his duty to watch over us. If we went away on vacation, he would bend all his doggie intelligence to the problem of finding us, before we poor incompetents, bereft of his supervision, got into some trouble we couldn't handle. He would escape from the yard (to which he had free access from the house via the doggie door) by digging under the fence, then showing up at neighbors' houses, sniffing around for our presence. Our neighbors had to keep blocking up these escape tunnels with boards and rocks. At last they blocked the doggie door — whereupon Boris began a determined effort to chew his way round it. His teeth marks are still there on the jamb.
When we all went off to China for six weeks in 2001, Boris was inconsolable. Neighbors reported that he would sit in the garden howling like a wolf for hours at a time. In 2002, when he was at least eleven years old, we went off for a weekend vacation. Boris escaped somehow, and was found at a house several blocks away. He simply could not bear the thought that we were away from his protection.
Boris loved us and took care of us. We loved him and took care of him in return. That was his life — a worthy and useful life, well lived.
Boris's album. Here are some photographs of our beloved Boris. Clicking on a picture brings up a bigger version.
|This is a very early picture of Boris, from late summer or fall of 1992 (so he is not even two years old). Rosie is pregnant with Nellie (born January 1993). Accompanying photographs of Rosie in the same outfit and condition show that we had not yet had our deck built. That green plastic watering-can in the background, by the way, was a favorite toy of Boris's. After a couple of years of his attentions, it was so chewed up as to be useless.|
|Taken at about the same time as the previous, i.e. mid to late 1992, this shows Boris with the larger of his two pets.|
|Also from 1992. The young Boris, with his leash, probably panting in anticipation of walkies.|
|Both our children, when very young, found the idea of sticking a finger into one of Boris's nostrils utterly irresistible. For the most part, Boris endured these indignities very stoically. This is Nellie, sometime in the Christmas season (the box of Christmas decorations can be glimpsed in the background) of 1993.|
|Though we never had any issues with him shedding, Boris could get mighty shaggy if left ungroomed. Here he is at peak shagginess in April 1994.|
|Immediately after a visit to the grooming salon, he was a different Boris, though only outwardly.|
|Probably some time in summer or fall of 1995, Boris watches over baby Nellie.|
|When the kids were small, the doggie door was naturally also a kiddie door. Here the door is under construction. I later added a proper frame and trim, and carpeted the "floor." Nellie is testing the basic design. This looks to be early 1996.|
|Taking a nap with Nellie on the living-room floor. This picture is undated, but Nellie looks to be four or five, so I'd guess it's late 1997.|
|Summer 1997. This is the kind of picture that, if published, causes irreparable rifts between children and parents. I'm coming up short on pictures of Danny with Boris, though, so this will have to do. Whatever Danny is doing there with Boris's tail, Boris is bearing it all very patiently, as he always did.|
|Early December 1997, Boris alert and on guard over Nellie, Danny, and a wheelbarrow (borrowed from a neighbor).|
|Christmastime, 1997. As a key member of the family, Boris of course always got a little something from Santa, placed under the family tree at Christmastime. (Usually it was a box of his favorite chewy treats.) Boris knew there was a present for him somewhere in the pile, and went sniffing for it.|
|This is our favorite picture of Boris. It somehow captures his essential Boris-ness. We have had it, framed, in our living-room for some years, but I don't know when it was taken. My guess would be 1997 or 1998. At any rate, this is Boris in his prime.|
|August 1998, Nellie five and a half years old, Boris seven or eight.|
|October 1998. A key principle in the management of humans is keeping them amused. Lacking much sense of smell, humans live in a dull, shadowy world. If not frequently stimulated, they get snappish and go off their feed. To prevent this happening, you have to endure a certain amount of indignity — allowing yourself to be dressed up in kiddie rainwear, for example. You need to cultivate some patience and tolerance here. It's worth it to keep your humans well-tempered and content. Hats are also good for this purpose. The trick is to keep your ears dead still so the stupid thing stays in place. Look, this stuff keeps your humans happy — that's the main thing.|
|January 2000. Boris, aged 8½ or 9, on the living-room sofa. The woollen rug in the background was knitted (crocheted? I'm not sure) by my mother. She knew what she was doing: it has survived constant rough handling by two children and a dog, and still adorns our sofa in 2012.|
|It's plainly fall, and Nellie looks to be six or seven years old, so this is around 2000.|
|January 2002. We walked Boris around the local streets and lanes on a 16-foot leash, to give him some freedom. He was almost precisely road-colored, though. I worried that some driver, not seeing him against the road surface, might accidentally run over him while I was lost in thought up ahead. Solution: bright red neckerchiefs like this one. Boris didn't seem to mind them, and they added a bit of class to his otherwise mutty appearance.|
|No family portrait was complete without Boris. The trick was to find a studio willing to include a dog. This was November 2003. Nellie is almost eleven, Danny eight and a half, Boris twelve and a half or thirteen.|
|Senior citizen Boris, July 2004. We did not originally intend for Boris to have sofa privileges, but he soon just asserted them.|
|This is the last photograph of Boris. It was taken December 8, 2007, to be used for our family Christmas card. Boris had slowed down considerably at this point, and was completely blind and deaf. He was still up for his daily walk, though — even the long walk, which we were still doing occasionally into late December. A family picture without Boris would have been unthinkable. This was his sixteenth Christmas with us.|
|Boris's little grave in our back yard.|
Boris's last days. Our Boris left us on January 18, 2008. Though not obviously ill in any way, he had been slowing down through the later months of 2007. His hind legs got weak, and from the middle of the year he could no longer get upstairs. We had to carry him up to the bedroom. (Boris always slept in the master bedroom with us. His usual spot was on the floor, where he could watch over us. However, if either of us was away, the other would generally let Boris sleep on the bed. He would also sleep on the bed with us in thunderstorms, at least until he got too deaf to be scared by them.)
After New Year 2008 Boris declined very quickly. I still made an effort to get him out for his daily walk, but it became more and more difficult. I think his last walk was January 6 or 7. After that I would just carry him out to the far end of the back yard, and let him walk down the lawn to the deck. His appetite fell off too. We fed him with boiled eggs and soft scraps. At last, though, the only way to get anything into his poor stomach was by squirting fluids into his mouth with a rubber ear-hygiene bulb. He started to be incontinent; we got a doggie diaper set to see him through the night.
He did not show any signs of pain or distress, only great lethargy. I knew, however, from my mother's nursing stories, that as the general shutting-down of the body systems progresses, it eventually reaches the nervous system, with spasms and pain. We did not want Boris to suffer that.
Signs that we were approaching this point appeared on January 17. That night he had some episodes of vomiting, preceded by fits of barking. We took turns sitting with him. The following morning, after some unsuccessful attempts to find a vet willing to make house calls, I made an appointment with Huntington Animal Hospital. Around noon, Doctor Amy Maguire did what was necessary with great tact and sympathy. Rosie and I held Boris's paws and stroked his head as he left us.
It is against the law in this county to bury an animal in your yard. The hospital presented us with a form from something called the "Pet Crematory Agency, Inc." We wanted Boris to go home with us, though, so I said so. The doctor's assistant was wonderfully understanding. "I don't know anything," she said, and left the "Cremation cost" entry on the form blank. I got the impression she does this a lot.
That afternoon was perfect winter weather: a bright cloudless sky, no wind, and not really very cold for mid-January (which is statistically the coldest time of year in New York). When we got home I dug a good deep (5 ft) grave in the back yard. At Rosie's insistence, Boris was laid to rest like a Chinese Emperor, surrounded by all his favorite possessions: his food bowl, his rug and blanket, the little red neckerchiefs he'd worn, his winter woollen jacket. To sustain him on that longest of all walkies, we scattered the remaining supplies of his favorite biscuits and chewy treats around him where he lay. Then we both filled in the grave, and Rosie read out some sutras in Chinese.
We have now joined the sad company of people who have buried a beloved dog. This company includes, I am surprised to learn, Confucius. ("Zhong-ni" is another name for Confucius; Zi-gong was a disciple.)
Whatever is left of a creature after death, corporeal or otherwise, is here with us now on our little piece of earth, in the back yard he had made his own. Thank you, Boris, for all the years of love and joy you brought us. Rest in peace, my dear old friend.
—— January 19, 2008
Kipling has the last word.
| The Power Of The
by Rudyard Kipling
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie —
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.
When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet's unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find — it's your own affair —
But … you've given your heart for a dog to tear.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!);
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone — wherever it goes — for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart for the dog to tear.
We've sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we've kept 'em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long —
So why in Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?